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Major Taylor Journal: A hero of our own

Mel Corbett, co-founder of the Major Taylor Iron Riders club, explores the historical connection between Major Taylor cycling clubs.

Named for Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, the country’s first Black cycling champion, and the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, an all-Black unit known as the ‘Iron Riders,’ the Major Taylor Iron Riders club of New York City is comprised largely of Black, Latino, and Asian-American riders. These riders have informed perspectives on what it means to be a person of color in the U.S. cycling scene. We are honored to share their thoughts in a regular column series on velonews.com in the coming months.  

Picture this: The year is 2013 and I am taking part in the Seagull Century benefit ride in Salisbury Maryland with my club. As we tear down the road at 25 mph, we pass riders who shout out our name: “Major Taylor!” Other riders bellow out the club’s other name: “Iron Riders!” The shouting is all in a show of admiration and respect.

A sense of pride envelopes me because I am a member of the Major Taylor Iron Rider club.

My name is Mel Corbett and I’m one of the co-founders of the Major Taylor Iron Riders club. My love of bike riding goes back to my days as a little boy on the streets of Harlem. We were pretty poor, and I didn’t have a bike of my own. The older kids would ride up and down the block on their bikes. When they put them down to take a rest, I would pick up one of the bikes that had a top tube that was somewhere near my head. Not being able to mount the bike, I would put one foot on the pedal, grab the handlebars, and use that big bike like a big scooter.

Even then I knew that I loved the feeling that bike riding gave me.

Riders from various Major Taylor clubs snap photos at the Seagull Century. Photo: Mel Corbett

During my developing years there, my little group of friends would mount our bikes and ride about a mile to the local White Castle restaurant. Again, I did not have my own bike, but a borrowed bike. After filling ourselves up our stomachs with those tiny burgers, we would ride back to our neighborhood. Most of our bikes needed repair. The gears and brakes did not work. We rode our bikes like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble — we used our feet when we needed to stop. We did not have fancy clothes or helmets or cycling shoes. We just rode bikes recklessly through the streets of the Bronx. That experience was my earliest introduction to group rides.

By the time I reached college, I finally had my own bike. It was an orange Peugeot 10 speed road bike. I was very proud of that bike. I rode that bike for transportation back and forth to school. On one such trip, a fellow female classmate of mine saw me locking up the bike and approached me about riding with her club. It would be my introduction to L&M Tourers, an African American cycling club created by Lucille and Mildred Smith, two sisters.

Mildred Smith-Evans (center) and Mel Corbett (right) during a ride with L&M Tourers. Photo: Mel Corbett

Mildred and her older Sister Lucille had formed their club because they did not feel welcomed by a prominent white cycling club in the city. The club grew in popularity because it provided African Americans with a venue to take part in a sport that we all loved.

Shortly after joining the club I moved to Brooklyn and started riding in Prospect Park, a hotbed for very experienced riders and racers.

In the early years of my riding career. I wore every kind of European cycling kit with names of sponsors that I had never heard of on my chest and back. In the back of my mind, I longed for an image of myself or someone who looked like me on my jersey. It was not until I met two brothers who were members of a Black cycling club out of Columbus Ohio.

They had named their club the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Columbus Ohio.

Seeing the jersey made me ask the important question: Who was Major Taylor? I came to find out that he was the world champion cyclist of 1899 after reading his excellent biography by Andrew Ritchie entitled, “The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer Major Taylor.” When Major Taylor competed for his championship, the country was just 34 years removed from the U.S. Civil War and the end of slavery.

Can you imagine what it was like to be a Black man competing during those times? Racism is still alive today — I cannot imagine what he must have gone through. Major Taylor’s story is our story. In his story, I found a cycling hero that I could put right up there with the great Eddy Merckx, Greg Lemond, and Miguel Indurain.

Major Taylor become the name that would appear across my chest.

The author wearing his Major Taylor Iron Riders kit today. Photo: Mel Corbett

When I did my first Seagull Century, I wore the Major Taylor Jersey of Columbus Ohio. It was then that I saw the reaction from riders on the road and at the rest stops. They all were curious to learn about Major Taylor, and they took pride in knowing that we had a Black champion cyclist.

Years later I was fortunate to meet with some fellow riders here in New York City, and in 2006 I became one the founders of my club, The Major Taylor Iron Riders.

The Iron Riders name pays tribute to the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps made up of African American soldiers during the 1890s. They rode 1900 miles across the country to test the feasibility of using bicycles during a war. Although our club is predominately African American, it also consists of riders of all nationalities. The lone requirement for membership is that you love to ride bikes. The welcome and nurturing that we provide our members ensures that they have the optimal bike riding experience.

From our beginning, every year have taken part in the Seagull Century, and every year we have seen at least one new Major Taylor cycling club from a different part of the country show up. For years now, the Major Taylor name has caught on with riders who are yearning for a connection to the sport they love.

With the popularity of cycling exploding amongst African Americans communities in the United States, there now are different branches of Major Taylor cycling clubs located throughout the country. They are all under the umbrella of the Major Taylor Association, located in Wooster, Massachusetts, the home of Marshall “Major” Taylor.

Participants in the Seagull Century now see big packs of different colorful jerseys. They all have one thing in common: They are all Major Taylors.

My cycling career has come a long way over 40 years. It has introduced me to lifelong friends, and it has given me an incredible healthy lifestyle. I am proud to see new young African American cyclists having a hero that they can call their own in Major Taylor. I take pride in knowing that we were one of the first Major Taylor cycling clubs.

We finally have a hero of our own.